Few things in life are quite as exciting as pulling in a giant halibut over the rail. Such memories can be cherished with family and friends for a lifetime. For Alaska sport anglers, fishing for halibut is something we look forward to all year. Charter fishing businesses throughout the state help provide this opportunity to Alaskans and to the many tourists for whom a halibut trip is a major draw to Alaska.
Yet this important natural, renewable resource is in trouble and showing signs of distress. The exploitable biomass -- or the amount of halibut that can be harvested by fishermen -- in the Gulf of Alaska has dropped 58 percent in the past 10 years. Commercial catch limits for the directed long-line fishery in the Gulf have been reduced by 60 percent. Anglers who fish on charter boats in Southeast Alaska (Area 2C) have been restricted to only catching one fish of any size and then one fish less than 37 inches in recent years. While the bag limit in Southcentral Alaska (Area 3A) has stayed at two halibut of any size, if these downward trends in the halibut stock continue, you can bet that restrictions will come to Southcentral Alaska charter anglers soon enough.
While halibut charters and the commercial halibut fishery have taken drastic cuts in their catch limits as the halibut stock has taken a turn for the worse, there is one sector that has remained largely untouched by these cuts: the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery. Today the groundfish trawl and hook and line commercial fisheries are allowed to catch a combined total of 2,300 metric tons -- more than 5 million pounds -- of halibut as bycatch each year without penalty. This means that more halibut is taken as bycatch each year than the amount of Gulf of Alaska halibut harvested by Southeast and Southcentral sport anglers combined! And while the directed commercial halibut fishery has taken dramatic cuts in recent years, the halibut bycatch limit for these other commercial fisheries has remained largely unchanged since 1989.
After 20 years of the status quo, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), which manages the federal fisheries in the economic exclusive zone from three to 200 miles offshore of Alaska, is finally considering a reduction in the bycatch limit for the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries. At its upcoming meeting in Kodiak June 6 -- 8, the NPFMC will adopt final action on halibut bycatch: options range from 5 percent to 15 percent for a reduction in the halibut prohibited species catch (PSC) limits in the Gulf of Alaska.
While commercial and recreational fishing sectors may not agree on many issues, we do agree on this: It is long past time for the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries to share equitably in the burden of conservation for the halibut resource. Many diverse interests, from commercial harvesters and processors to charter operators and sport anglers, are advocating for a 15 percent reduction, which is the most fair-minded approach when contrasted with the more than 50 percent decrease in the commercial fisheries and bag limit reduction in the Southeast Alaska charter fleet.
I urge all Alaskans who care about the halibut resource and want to be able to continue to fish for halibut to urge the NPFMC to reduce the halibut bycatch limit by 15 percent (the maximum reduction being considered). Also contact the governor and tell him how important it is to protect our halibut resource. You can reach the governor at 907-465-3500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ricky Gease is the executive director for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a 501(c)3 nonprofit fishery conservation organization dedicated to the sustainability of fisheries on the Kenai and Alaska.